From Narcissism to Melancholia, and Back Again
I have been making the claim throughout this book that Narcissus can be raised from his recent history of negative attribution and brought centre-stage in the performance of sociability. Of course, some might argue that Narcissus should be left exactly where he is: they might say that it is simply not possible to relocate him in this way for he will refuse to be enticed from the imaginary enclosure he cohabits with his own self-image, and even if, hypothetically, we could lure him away from himself, it would be dangerous to do so (remember that Narcissus’ certain fate was punishment for his disregard of others’ interests). But then again, if we believe the critics of ‘cultural narcissism’, Narcissus has long since broken free from his fixation at the poolside, and can be found circulating destructively in the economic and libidinal systems of late modern capitalism. With Narcissus’ entry into the market, the critical declinists perceived a threat to the impersonality of public culture and its opportunities for aesthetic forms of sociability. Contrariwise, I have been concerned to show Narcissus’ communicative side; his capacity for charm, and his active seduction of his self that inevitably leaves its mark on the other. Rather than banish Narcissus back into ‘splendid isolation’, I should like to see him feature more vitally within contemporary psychosocial discourse.
We have returned repeatedly to our mythic protagonist to interrogate his state of possession and non-possession. The dialectical reading of narcissism that I have pursued has been critical to our appreciation of Narcissus’ multifaceted qualities. Just as the figure of the child – e. g. inquisitive Little Hans – finds self-delight in the very questions that threaten to undo him, and just as the Narquette finds a fulsome satisfaction in becoming less than herself, so too does Narcissus’ ‘joy in torment’ indicate a curious double structure. There is a similar structure to be detected in Freud’s theorisation of the melancholic as someone who is entirely absorbed in his own grief and suffering, but nonetheless ‘displays […] an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard’ (1917b, 246). Indeed, in Freud’s depiction, the melancholic displays an attachment to his suffering that brings to mind the reading of Narcissus’ predicament offered by Salome in the previous chapter where the hero’s self-enchantment is accompanied always by his melancholy. Despite the numerous indications that Freud gives as to the shared contours of the narcissist and the melancholic, it is often the case that strong lines of demarcation are drawn between the two figures. Narcissism is taken to signify rigidity and fixedness symptomatic of a closed economy of desire, whilst melancholia is readily associated with openness and not-knowing that correlates to expressions of ambivalence. On the basis of such minimal characterisations, it is not difficult to suggest that the latter provides the more attractive model of subjectivity. More interestingly, and not un-relatedly, melancholia has also proved the more attractive theoretical apparatus for contemporary analyses of the operations of power constitutive of (political) subject-formation. Following the negative cultural narcissism discourse associated with the 1970s – 1980s (Chapter 4), there has been a discursive turn away from narcissism and towards melancholia as the more pertinent term for thinking about contemporary social relations. No doubt melancholia’s ascendancy in the critical literature attests to the desire for a lexical register that can attend to displacement and dispossession as principal constituents of a contemporary politics. In Freud’s formulation, what is lost remains dwelling within the melancholy subject because it cannot be grieved. We saw earlier how nostalgia keeps alive a past that was never a present (Chapter 3); correspondingly, we might say that melancholia invests in a lost object that refuses to go away. The reason it refuses to go away is because the melancholy subject incorporates the object which comes to provide the basis for an identification, the strength of which appears to (re)define the subject. As a conceptual model in Freud’s metapsychology, then, melancholia encourages us to ask whether loss is the necessary premise of identity. This question, resonating as it does beyond the realm of individual psychopathology, must surely go some way to explaining melancholia’s attraction from the perspective of theorising contemporary psychosocial formations.
However, if the rise of melancholia as a discursive term of consequence suggests something of a paradigm shift, then what becomes of Narcissus? Are we really content to restrict his critical import to the negative portrayal associated with the cultural criticism of the mid-to-late twentieth century? Or, might we be able to keep open a space for narcissism on the social scene that could be attractive to projects of contemporary critique? In the concluding chapter of this book, I shall continue to make the case for narcissism’s ongoing value to current representations of the psychosocial by focussing on narcissism’s and melancholia’s proximate positioning. As will be anticipated, I shall resist a reading of Narcissus as entirely blind to his own loss (the loss implied in his intermittent possession and non-possession of himself) and ask instead what we might lose if we situate the narcissist against the melancholic, or abandon him altogether to the annals of criticism where he functioned as the sign of cultural decline. Our first task, however, is to endeavour to understand the relation between narcissism and melancholia as they are situated in Freud’s work: As Freud explicates them, what exactly do the terms share, what is their common ground, so to speak, and along what lines, if any, do they begin to diverge?